August 12, 2001
On Radio, a Journey Through the Mind
By ANDY MEISLER
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders,
a standard reference work for mental health professionals, defines
Dysthymic Disorder as "a chronically depressed mood that occurs
for most of the day more days than not for at least two years."
From his office on West 36th Street in Manhattan, Bill Lichtenstein,
the creator and executive producer of the weekly public radio
program "The Infinite Mind," got increasingly enthusiastic recently
as he riffed on how the syndrome could be the perfect focus
of an episode.
"We'd want to know what it's like to live with dysthymia,"
he said. "Which brings up the question: What happens if we take
all these people and treat them? Would you, if you were dysthymic,
take a pill - or undergo a cognitive therapy or whatever - that
would guarantee you'd be happy for the rest of your life?
"So now you've got to get someone - a well-known observer of
culture - to do an essay. To talk about this dialectic: How
is it that some people feel that it's great to be happy all
the time while some people seek the misery of life? So let's
find a comedian who builds an act around being depressed all
the time, and ask him or her: What's that all about? "
And then there's the Anne Sexton thing. People say, `If we'd
had effective antidepressants in Anne Sexton's time, we wouldn't
have had her great poetry.' The other side says, `Yes, but she
would have been alive and writing a lot longer.'
"So I say: Let's find some suffering poets! And ask them how
they work and how they feel."
In the media mainstream, explorations of human psychology tend
toward relationship makeovers and journeys into the minds of
serial killers. But "The Infinite Mind," a three-year-old program
that focuses on the nature of thought, the science of the brain
and mental health - and the subtle, often unfathomable interactions
between them - is not afraid to probe deeper. And later this
month an hourlong installment on dysthymia will join 117 previous
shows on topics like habit, shyness, clutter and hoarding, the
insanity defense, altruism, courage and post-traumatic stress
"Sure, it's a complicated subject," Mr. Lichtenstein, 44, said,
"but isn't it our job as journalists to take complicated subjects
and make them understandable and interesting? That's the very
reason we created the show."
"The Infinite Mind" is broadcast on 168 public radio stations
to an audience that averages around 500,000. It appears in wildly
disparate time slots; WNYC-AM (820) in New York currently runs
it at 7 a.m. on Sundays. Mr. Lichtenstein and his five-person
staff - which includes his wife, June Peoples, as his senior
producer and chief deputy - execute their idiosyncratic format
on a budget of slightly more than $20,000 a show.
The show's host is Dr. Fred Goodwin, 65, a former director
of the National Institute of Mental Health and a leading expert
on manic depression, also known as bipolar disorder. Dr. Goodwin
handles the show's in- studio interviews as well as all introductions
and segues. Before he joined the show, he had no radio experience.
"One of the reasons I took the job was to let the public listen
to a psychiatrist who didn't fit the stereotype - who actually
sounded like a normal person," he said.
John Hockenberry, the writer and NBC correspondent who has
contributed dozens of commentaries and essays for "The Infinite
Mind," said: "Dr. Fred wouldn't pass an audition, wouldn't even
get a callback, at any broadcast entity I've ever worked for.
But on this show he does a tremendous job."
Indeed, the soft-spoken, empathetic Dr. Goodwin - he often
concludes his interviews with a therapeutic-sounding "I'm afraid
we'll have to stop" - manages to keep himself and his interview
subjects relatively jargon-free.
"One of the interesting things we've learned doing the show,"
Mr. Lichtenstein said, "is that the top people in the field,
including Nobel Prize winners, seem to have gotten where they
are partly via their ability to explain their work effectively
to the general public."
In the hoarding and clutter episode, Dr. Goodwin intently questioned
a clinician who treats patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder
and a researcher examining the genetic and neurobiological underpinnings
of the problem - after listeners heard from an elderly woman
whose house had been taken over by decades of magazines and
newspapers. There was also a segment about a successful advertising
executive who had to face his fears and clear out his apartment
before he brought his newly adopted child home.
In the episode titled "Courage," a financial analyst related
how he had reflexively risked his life to try to save a couple
who had fallen into a nearly frozen lake; Dr. Goodwin talked
to a Polish-born Jew who was hidden from the Nazis by a Catholic
peasant woman and has become an authority on the sociology of
courage and altruism; and interviews were done with members
of a New York Fire Department rescue company and a researcher
who is exploring the psychological bases of courage and altruism
and their siblings, sensation-seeking and criminal aggression.
Mr. Hockenberry, a paraplegic since his teens, contributed an
essay in which he bemoaned being congratulated for having the
"courage" to proceed with life in a wheelchair.
One theme that runs through "The Infinite Mind" is that those
with mental illnesses and neurological disorders experience
suffering and social stigma - and fascinating, often unexpectedly
This can be traced to Mr. Lichtenstein's own experience. Born
and raised in the Boston area, he received a graduate degree
from the Columbia School of Journalism in 1979 and by his mid-20's
was producing segments for "20/20," "Nightline" and other ABC
In 1986, when Mr. Lichtenstein was working as a producer and
director for a short-lived late-night television series called
"Jimmy Breslin's People," he began having paranoid thoughts
and delusions, including the conviction that the F.B.I had him
under surveillance and that he was receiving messages through
his television set.
Friends and co-workers convinced him that he needed to be hospitalized.
After several incorrect diagnoses, he was identified as a manic
depressive and placed on the proper medication.
"So I said to myself, `Well, now I can explain to my friends
what was going on,' " Mr. Lichtenstein said. " `That I have
manic depression, but now I feel much better.' As if that would
explain things. And then the phone just stopped ringing. I couldn't
get a callback. People I'd worked with for six, seven years,
with whom I'd been through war zones as a journalist, just stopped
returning my calls."
The strain of joblessness, Mr. Lichtenstein said, made his
mood swings worse and complicated the task of getting his illness
under control. He was hospitalized several more times; by 1990
he was supporting himself as an office temp.
With the help of a local support group for people with manic
depression, he managed to regroup. Reviving a long-held ambition,
he formed an independent production company, Lichtenstein Creative
Working out of his apartment, he started raising money for
a series of public radio documentaries on subjects he felt had
received grossly inadequate coverage: manic depression, schizophrenia
and depression. They were well received and won numerous awards;
he met Dr. Goodwin while producing the program on manic depression.
By 1998, with money from various private and corporate foundations
- including several unrestricted grants from pharmaceutical
companies - he was able to launch "The Infinite Mind."
Although produced in association with WNYC, which contributes
studio time and other services, "The Infinite Mind" is not affiliated
with either National Public Radio or Public Radio International,
the two major suppliers of public radio programming. The show
is distributed free by satellite to any radio station that wants
This means, Mr. Lichtenstein said, that he maintains editorial
independence. It also means that "The Infinite Mind" receives
far less promotion than programs like "Car Talk," "This American
Life" or "Prairie Home Companion."
Still, he said, the show is well enough established that he
and his team are contemplating both TV and book versions. And
he doesn't see the show running out of ideas anytime soon.
"I don't see any sort of end game," he said, non-dysthymically.
"The more subjects we do, the more subjects are revealed to
Andy Meisler is a freelance television producer and writer.
(c) 2001 The New York Times Company